Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Elmer the flying monk

You probably think that wingsuit flying is a very new extreme sport that has only been going for a few years. As a sport, you would no doubt be right, but the idea of attaching fabric to your body and using it as sort of parachute, in the way that a flying fox does, is not new at all.

Elmer of Malmesbury

Elmer was a young monk at Malmesbury Abbey (Wiltshire, England) in the early 11th century. He was very interested in science and enjoyed stargazing and birdwatching. He also read a great deal, including stories from Greek mythology. One myth that fascinated him was the story of Daedalus and Icarus who escaped from their prison tower by making wings for themselves and flying like the birds. Icarus flew too close to the Sun and the wax that held his wings together melted, with fatal consequences.

Elmer determined to go one better than Icarus and survive the attempt to glide like the birds he could see from the Abbey tower. It would appear that the equipment he made for himself was something between a wingsuit and a paragliding parachute. He stretched parchment or fabric across a lightweight wooden frame which he then attached to his arms and feet. It may have looked like the design in the memorial window pictured here, but there is no certainty about this.

Modern wingsuit flyers jump from high buildings (such as bridges) or mountain crags. The top of Elmer’s tower could only have been about 18 metres (59 feet) high, which does not sound a lot in terms of how much time would be needed for the parachute effect to take effect before he hit the ground. However, despite this obvious defect in Elmer’s scheme, he survived the attempt!

Elmer’s flight is recorded in the writings of William of Malmesbury, a fellow monk who was a celebrated historian but who lived about a century later than Elmer. Although William could not have interviewed any eye-witnesses of the event, he could quite easily have spoken to elderly monks who had known Elmer in their youth, because the latter lived into old age.

William records that Elmer glided for about 200 metres and, had he held his nerve, would probably have been able to control his wings well enough to land gently on his feet. However, it appears that the updraught of air that rose not far from the tower panicked him and he landed in an undignified heap, breaking both his legs in the process.

Medical science being what it was in those days, Elmer’s broken bones were not reset properly and he spent the rest of his life with badly deformed legs that made walking difficult. It was no doubt the sight of the elderly monk limping around the abbey that prompted the novice monks to ask him how he had got that way, and Elmer was apparently willing to tell his story, which was later passed on to William of Malmesbury.

According to William, Elmer always reckoned that he could have succeeded if only he had fitted a tail to his birdman apparatus.

© John Welford

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